The immediate pressure is off the Braves. They followed their season-opening flop in Philly with a series victory over the Cubs. The Braves probably are not as bad as they seemed in Philadelphia (and the Phillies might just be that good).
The Braves didn’t exactly right the ship against the Cubs. They still have big issues, most of all the bullpen, but the Cubs have more. Still, winning a couple of games temporarily slowed the flow of “financial flexibility” jokes and Tiger Woods memes among Braves backers.
The Braves are getting healthier, too. They activated key reliever A.J. Minter from the injured list Thursday. The Braves are expected to do the same with Kevin Gausman on Friday. Both pitchers should provide an immediate boost to a staff that needs it.
Now that the Braves are on the mend, we can start to get a true picture of how good they can be. Some developments, such as Freddie Freeman’s production, are sure to continue. Other trends, such as Julio Teheran’s tightrope-walking, seem unsustainable. Many more aspects of this team are somewhere in between.
It’s all those unknowns that have Braves manager Brian Snitker taking a wait-and-see approach with his team. The samples are still small in the longest season of them all. Snitker noted that some teams start slowly before getting on roll and “a lot of teams start fast and fade.”
So, when does Snitker think he’ll have a true gauge of his Braves?
“About two months in,” Snitker said.
We’ll have to wait and see with the Braves. As noted on opening day, that can be hard for baseball fans to do when their team staggers from the start. But there are good reasons to believe the Braves will be better by the end of May.
Minter helps with their most urgent need. He hasn’t had many bad outings among 81 since making his Braves debut in 2017. The Braves use Minter as a co-closer, which means either he or Arodys Vizcaino can work middle relief with the other available to finish.
That’s a big deal for the Braves, whose relievers had a collective 7.08 ERA after Wednesday. Only four teams were worse. That includes National League East-rival Washington and the Cubs, whose relievers squandered a two-run lead Wednesday. That came after their Braves counterparts turned a 2-1 lead into a 4-2 deficit.
There are bad bullpens all over the majors. Entering Thursday’s games, nine teams had MLB bullpens with a 5.00 ERA or higher. Six bullpens had a walk percentage worse than the Braves, according to FanGraphs, and 11 had a worse strikeout-to-walk ratio.
Home runs was the only category in which the Braves’ bullpen was unmatched in ineptitude through five games. Braves relievers had allowed 2.66 long balls per nine innings, with their six home runs allowed spread across five pitchers. Five of those homers were hit by Phillies mashers but that’s cold comfort when it’s a division rival.
Minter will help with all of that. He had a heavy workload in 2018, his first full season, and posted a slightly above-average walk rate with a very good strikeout rate and a low percentage of homers allowed. Minter’s profile suggests he can have a similar performance this season.
Veteran Braves reliever Darren O’Day still is on the shelf because of elbow tightness, with no clear timetable for his return. Add O’Day to a bullpen with Vizcaino and Minter, and the Braves might have enough relief pitching to contend. As it stands now, they may have enough to get by if their young hitters keep producing.
Braves starters haven’t been much better than the relievers. Rookies Bryse Wilson and Kyle Wright got beat up in Philly. Sean Newcomb made it just four innings in his first start because he’s still walking too many batters. Teheran has been getting by with lots of strikeouts, but that’s never been his thing, so it would be a surprise if it continues.
Help also is on the way for the rotation. Gausman was very good in 10 starts for the Braves in 2018 and owns a long track record as a guy who works a lot of innings and keeps his team in games. Last season’s ace, Mike Foltyneiwcz, made a rehab start at Triple-A Gwinnett on Thursday and probably is two weeks away.
That will be mid-April, when we’ll know more about the Braves.
“You have a plan at the beginning, you’ve got to let it play out,” Snitker said. “After the first month we’ll look and see where we’re at. We are putting a lot of pressure on a lot of young, inexperienced guys.”
The immediate pressure is off the Braves. Reinforcements are arriving just in time to help the team navigate a schedule that toughens after a weekend series with the Marlins. I still think the Braves can be a pretty good team, but I’ll know for sure after the Nationals come to town for a series near the end of May.
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